28 November 2023

“It’s not always a straight line” – How sports mentoring is turning young men’s lives around.

Young adults
A young Black man catches a rugby ball in the air while held aloft by his team mate

We spoke to Jennifer Mustoe-Castle, Chief Operating Officer at 3Pillars Project, about their sports-based mentoring programme which supports young men in the criminal justice system.

3Pillars Project uses rugby and mentoring to engage young men in custody and the community to build a positive future for themselves. The charity was founded by Mike Crofts in 2015, who was inspired to set up the organisation while volunteering on a rugby programme in Feltham Young Offenders Institution.

“It struck him that a lot of the young guys there were similar to men he’d known in the military. Men who, if they hadn’t had that support and structure from the military, might have ended up on the same path to prison. But he saw that with support, guidance, and care, these young men could be successful.”

Mike recognised early on that this wasn’t simply about coaching these young men to play a sport. It was about using sport as a vehicle to provide structure, mentoring and the chance to develop positive values.

“We refer to it as a Trojan Horse because what you get out of it isn’t what you’d expect. Young men tell us they didn’t expect to come on the course and talk about resilience, controlled aggression and aiming high.

“Unsurprisingly, sport interventions have been found to reduce offending by 52 per cent, significantly cutting violent crime. But I’d argue it’s not the actual sport or newfound rugby skills that lead to this positive change. It’s having a youth work approach that focuses on each individual.

“By building self-awareness, these young guys are able to make better decisions. When describing the course we don’t lead with information about personal development as we know they wouldn’t sign up. But, often at the end of the course we are told that that’s where we have made the most positive impact with an individual.

The evidence we have gathered through T2A research, as well as that from government bodies and academic institutions, shows that between 18 and 25 the brain is still developing. This can present as unpredictable, risk-taking behaviour leading to involvement in the criminal justice system.

Speaking about how maturity affects the 3Pillars Project approach, Jen says:

“Psychosocial immaturity is prevalent in young men in custody or under probation supervision. This affects how they engage with and respond to prison regimes, probation licenses and supervision.

“Therefore, we have designed our programmes to provide support and structure for the transition from prison to community through development of life skills, employment training and help in finding employment, activities that encourage people to take responsibility and build a positive identity and opportunity to take on peer support roles.”

3Pillars supports young men at different stages of the justice system in London, the South East and the Midlands – starting in custody and then through resettlement and into sustained education, employment, or training. This approach is broken down into three distinct phases.

“We have three academies: Rugby, Fitness, and Leadership. The Rugby Academy is eight sessions over a week or 8 weeks, depending on the category of prison. We teach them how to play rugby, mindset workshops, and a level one Sports Leader qualification.

“During resettlement, they can join our Fitness Academy, which offers support, job placements, and mentoring. That way, they feel they’re coming out into something more settled – a pathway into education and training. Once people have achieved that, they stay part of our Leadership Academy.”

The core value of all three academies is to empower young men to develop positive values and behaviours.

“We work on the characteristics like empathy, resilience, controlled aggression, relationships – all of which contribute to our ultimate goal that people are in stable employment, education and training. Once people have that stability, they’re less likely to reoffend.”

Troy has recently been doing work experience with 3Pillars Project while on release on temporary license. Speaking of his experiences with the charity, he said:

“My experience throughout my time with 3Pillars has been life changing, allowing me to better myself and help others through the love of sports. Thanks to the organisation, I have gained more experience as well as a number of qualifications through courses and team building exercises that 3Pillars have provided for me”.

Many of the young men the charity supports are dealing with the impact of childhood trauma, which can resurface at different stages in their lives. That’s why 3Pillars Project remains available to offer advice and support whenever it’s needed, even years down the line.

“That trauma is almost always the trigger to reoffending. So, we make sure the young men we help know that they can always come back. It’s really important to us. We don’t have a fixed amount of time that we allocate to each person,” Jen adds.

3Pillars Project has recognised that staying the course with young men, who are caught in a cycle of reoffending, is key to building trust and changing entrenched negative behaviours.

“One person went back four times into custody, but now he has a job and has turned his life around. It’s not always a straight line, it’s not always linear.

“Some of the young men tell us that lots of people have given up on them during their lives. That’s why continuing to maintain a presence in these young men’s lives, through the ups and downs, can be a real game changer.”

Young men can be referred to the programme at different stages of the justice system, but Jen is keen to reach them as early on as possible. This ensures that 3Pillars Project can offer support throughout their time in custody and beyond, becoming a dependable and trusted source of advice and support.

“It’s so important that we do the eight weeks in custody and not just probation referrals. Young adults need that trusted person who will help them navigate the system. We’re there to coach them, not necessarily in sport, but on their journey. A lot of our training is about supporting people in their lives as a whole.”